“Our raw-bar special tonight is the Gowanus oyster. Briny, good salinity with undertones of sewage and industrial detergents . . .”
Hard to imagine now, but New York Harbor and its surrounding tributaries, estuaries and bays once produced enough native shellfish that a typical city dweller ate about 600 local oysters a year.
Cheap, abundant oysters were the pizza slice of the early 1800s. For less than a penny apiece, this poor man’s dietary staple was sold at countless oyster saloons in lower Manhattan. The happy-hour special — called the “Canal Street Plan” — was all-you-can-eat for a sixpence.
Pearl Street — called Parelstraat by Dutch colonists — was so named because the road was paved with native oyster shells.
By 1910, 1.4 billion oysters a year were pulled out of city waters — and, around the same time, the people eating all those increasingly bacteria-tainted shellfish began to fall ill with vibrio cholera and typhoid.
As recently as 1921, lobsters and shellfish were still being plucked from Jamaica Bay in Queens — not so appetizing now that the bay is home to JFK Airport and four sewage-treatment plants.
There are still some surviving oysters in Big Apple waters, such as the practically pitiable Crassostrea virginica, but as oysters are, in essence, a creature of water filtration, they are not surprisingly polluted, diseased and mercifully few. Any oyster you see on a raw-bar menu in the city these days comes from at least 30 miles away. Anywhere from Rhode Island or Maine to the Pacific Northwest.
It’s a bit ironic amid a locavore movement among the city’s foodies that New York has such “a broken relationship with its own ocean,” says author Paul Greenberg.
Two centuries ago, reefs composed of 3 trillion oysters were a “natural seawall” that created shallower bays and served as a “first line of defense for Manhattan against storms as fierce or fiercer than 2012’s Hurricane Sandy,” Greenberg writes.In “American Catch,” eco warrior Greenberg laments the “pollution free-for-all” that killed the edible New York City oyster (“By 1910, 600 million gallons a day of raw sewage were going into New York’s waterways”), yet he remains hopeful of a rebirth for the most unlikely of reasons: flood control.
Over the next 50 years, the sea level is predicted by environmental scientists to rise approximately two feet. Since Sandy, the Army Corps of Engineers, architects and federal and city government officials have been brainstorming ideas to head off the next catastrophe. Proposals have included building a massive, 5-mile seawall hook or elevated platforms ringing the Battery.
Greenberg posits that a far more effective and certainly more cost-effective — less than $1 billion compared with estimates of around $50 billion for the more outlandish ideas — would be to repopulate oyster beds around the city. It’s an idea already studied by the organization NY/NJ Baykeeper, which is headquartered on Governors Island.
Not surprisingly, a component of the plan is recycling. Think of all those tons of oyster shells thrown into the trash by city restaurants every year. Those could be reintroduced to the water to serve as a base for a revitalized oyster bed. Additionally, concrete when coated with calcium carbonate acts as a fertile base for oyster larvae to set.Oysters are unique among shellfish in that they build their beds vertically — upon the shells of expired ancestors — almost like coral reefs. With pollution greatly reduced since the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, the author believes that with a jump-start, oyster reefs could become self-perpetuating over the next century.
Greenberg admits oysters alone “wouldn’t stop the inundation” of a massive hurricane, but it could “mitigate its extremes.”
“An oyster reef could, for example, extend the breakwater at Breezy Point at the far end of the Rockaways and shield Coney Island in its lee,” he writes. “The ocean is coming at us in a way it never has before, and very soon we will be forced to profoundly renegotiate a truce between land and sea.”
OK, so when do we get to eat a New York City oyster?
“Sometime around 2050,” Greenberg says.
“Gotham is in fact one huge estuary,” he adds. “Once upon a time, each little outflow had its own salinity and its own specific oyster taste. Today most of the creeks have been interrupted, paved over, and rerouted underground, through the sewer system or trickling out along subway lines.”
Subway oysters? Might want to have the cocktail sauce ready